Gabriel Bergmoser is an award-winning Melbourne-based author and playwright. In 2016, his first young adult novel, Boone Shepard, was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. His first novel for adults, The Hunted, is a bestseller with a film adaptation in the works. This August, Gabriel’s BRAND-NEW title “The Caretaker” hit the shelves… and we couldn’t help but to make it our Fiction Book of the Month!
This nail-biting story is set in an isolated ski resort during the off-season and follows Charlotte – a woman who doesn’t want to be found. Although she tries to convince herself that she’s safe, strange things are starting to happen around the resort. This is a game of cat and mouse – with deadly consequences. Get ready… you will be second-guessing yourself at every turn.
Exclusively for QBD Book Lovers, Gabriel has provided the PREQUEL for this brilliant story… Let’s dive in!
He’d had one too many the night before, and at his age one too many was far too many, but, still, he was feeling good. He’d told Miranda about it when he’d got home, sitting on the edge of the bed, struggling to pull off his shoes. About the young bloke getting a bit mouthy with a sheila just minding her own business. About how none of the old fellas were doing a thing. About how he’d got down from the barstool, hitched up his pants and walked right over to tell that young buck what was what. Well, of course, the numpty had arked up, gone on about doing nothing wrong or whatever, and the sheila had insisted it was fine, but Bert had not budged and finally the young bloke had left. The sheila looked embarrassed, poor thing, but Bert had bought her a drink, been gentle and comforting and chivalrous. She’d still left five minutes later, phone to her ear. Probably a bit thrown by it all. He hoped she was alright.
Dragging himself around the roadhouse that morning, getting the place opened up, he regretted nothing except maybe the nightcap. No, it was good he’d been there. Whatever Miranda said about the time he spent in the pub, if he hadn’t, stuff might have looked a little different. He wasn’t blowing smoke up his own arse or anything, but it was important that a bloke stood up for people sometimes. Knew when to draw the line.
He settled in behind the counter with a coffee and opened the paper. He thought again about the previous night. He smiled and sipped as a ringing bell announced a customer.
He didn’t recognise the man who walked in. Usually it was only locals. This man was tall and slim, blond, with dark glasses, dressed in a black jacket. There was something immediately other about him, something that made Bert sit up a little straighter. He glanced out the window. No car.
‘Good morning,’ the man said. He had a Scandinavian accent. Bert recognised it from his Kon-Tiki tour, years ago.
‘Fuel?’ Bert asked, even though there was no car.
The man faced the window for a moment. He looked back at Bert. Said nothing.
Bert shuffled. He was too hungover for this. ‘Need some smokes, or …’
The man placed a photo on the counter.
It took Bert a moment to recognise the woman, and another to remember precisely why seeing her face caused a thud of dread in his gut.
He tried for a joke. ‘Showing off your girlfriend, are you, mate?’
The man did not laugh. He tapped the photo. ‘You have seen her.’
It wasn’t phrased like a question.
Bert tried to whip his brain into gear. What the fuck was he supposed to say to this? Yes, he had seen her. Weeks ago, maybe months. And yes, he had recognised her. Keeping her head down, trying to seem calm, even though she was clearly terrified. She’d thanked him with a mumble and paid cash. He’d watched her go out the door, thought about taking down her plates, then decided against it. Her car had pulled away and, swearing to himself, he’d grabbed his pen just in time.
Charlotte Laurent. She’d been all over the news a little while back. Bert hadn’t thought anything of it at the time, but Miranda had sat there shaking her head, muttering ‘poor love’.
‘Poor love?’ Bert had scoffed, checking the time. Footy was supposed to be starting. ‘Dumb bitch, more like. Getting involved in that shit.’
‘Jesus, Bert.’ Miranda had given him a disbelieving look. ‘See how young she is? As if you didn’t do stupid shit at that age. God, I hope she’s alright.’
On reflection, Bert had realised that Miranda was right. It was pretty bloody average of him to have said that, and he announced as much to Miranda at dinner that night.
So when Charlotte Laurent had walked into Bert’s servo, he’d quickly decided the right thing was to turn a blind eye, let her keep running. He’d been proud of that. He’d gone to the pub that night to celebrate. He hadn’t planned on telling anyone, but then had whispered it to a few trusted lads a bit later.
He did not, however, tell anyone he had her licence plate number.
Now, watching this strange man, a hum of unease started to spread through him. He cleared his throat. Shook his head.
‘No, mate. Must be mistaken.’
The man nodded at one of the cameras. ‘What about them? Are they mistaken?’
Bert managed a laugh. ‘Reset every week, mate. Nothing to see there.’
At that, the Scandinavian man chuckled a little. ‘No. No, I suppose there won’t be.’
‘Anyway,’ Bert said, ‘lot of people come through here. Maybe she was one of them, but I don’t remember. So …’
‘That is not what I have heard,’ the man said. ‘In fact, I am under the impression you were quite excited by your brush with this woman. And even more excited by your own apparent discretion.’
It was hot. Too hot. Bert wiped sweat from his forehead. ‘Probably … probably was a bit pissed, made some stuff up. You know, one too many with the fellas and—’
‘Your cameras are disabled,’ the man said.
Bert stared at him. ‘What … what do you …?’
‘I cut them off this morning.’ The man spoke as if this was just an interesting little fact. ‘Before you came in. I thought I should tell you, so that you can reconnect them.’
‘But why … why would you …?’
The man said nothing. Just waited.
Bert glanced at the door, willing somebody, anybody, to come in. But there was no-one. It was just him and the man and the photo between them.
He looked down at it. Charlotte was smiling, relaxed. The opposite of how she’d looked that day.
See how young she is?
She’d looked even younger in person. Tiny, almost diminished. More like a ghost than a person. Terrified and alone.
The man watched him.
Bert’s mouth was dry. He could not look at the photo again. He willed himself to think of a lie. Or, better yet, to call this prick’s bluff. Square up to him and sending him packing.
A hint of a mocking smile on the man’s face. His hands were behind his back.
Did he have a gun?
‘I don’t …’ Bert said. ‘I mean, I didn’t …’
The smile grew.
He thought of Miranda and the kids. He thought of that girl in the bar last night. He thought of Charlotte Laurent, and then he thought of himself, dead behind the counter of his shitty little roadhouse.
He opened his second drawer down. Found the scrap of paper and slid it across the table.
The man took his time considering it. After a moment, he nodded. He collected the photo along with the licence plate number.
‘Your cameras did not see me,’ he said. ‘It would be best if you did not see me either.’
Bert was shaking. He didn’t feel scared or angry. Just drained. He leaned on the counter. Made himself breathe.
When he felt a little steadier, he picked up the phone.
He remembered the licence plate. He should call the police now. Tell them somebody was looking for Charlotte Laurent, tell them he had information. Better the cops found her than that man.
He started to dial.
It would be best if you did not see me either.
Miranda had gone on about how sorry she felt for Charlotte Laurent, how young she was. About how they’d all done stupid things at that age. But, shit, none of them had done anything quite as stupid as Charlotte Laurent had. None of them had got involved in that rubbish. And that was why Bert was here living his life, while Charlotte was on the run.
Charlotte might have been young, but she was still an adult. She should have known better.
Bert did know better. He wasn’t stupid. And he had responsibilities. He couldn’t bring any trouble down on his family. He had to protect them, after all.
It was important that a bloke stood up for people sometimes. Knew when to draw the line.
He put down the phone and got back to work.